Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Proper of the Day: The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Can you believe that Eastertide is seven weeks old already? I can't. It feels like Easter was just yesterday. But no, it was Ascension that was actually three days ago, not Easter. Time flies, even during the Great Fifty Days. Although today's Gospel is from my favorite Gospel chapter, John 17, I found myself reflecting more on absence and presense than anything else. Here's my sermon for today:

St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Vernon
The Seventh Sunday of Easter 2008 (BCP)
Acts 1: 1-14; Psalm 47; I Peter 4:12-19; John 17:1-11
The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr., Vicar

May these words be in the Name of our Risen and Ascended Lord, Amen.

Hello, My name is!

Those stickers they make you put on at conferences and stuff. I hate those. Maybe I’m just getting crotchety, but I don’t necessarily want to say Hello to everyone who passes by. It seems like it’s a bit forward. I’m naturally shy, especially in big groups, and so to be forced to greet each person, even if it’s the sticker and not me personally, gets my ire up.

Of course, names are really important. Most of you know I’ve been working on learning all of your names. It’s a slow process, even with the picture you all have so graciously given me. You have all been uniformly patient with me as I work on this. And it’s so important for each of us, isn’t it? Calling someone by name honors them. None of us like to be called “Hey You!” or “You there” or even worse epiphets. We can hear our name spoken aloud even from across a crowded room. Each of us has a name and it’s ours. It’s a shorthand description of everything there is to know about us. More so than an identification number, which may indeed be statistically unique but isn’t very human, we’re proud of our names. Our name denotes who we are. Robert Francis Solon, Jr. That’s my name. Sure, I have a title, also. Many of us do. Titles communicate function or rank or both, but ultimately it’s one’s own personal name that is the important thing. Behind Her Royal Majesty, Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, is plain old Elizabeth Windsor. That’s the name God know her as, and it’s our names that God know each of us through baptism by as well.

And we believe that names are so important that when we pray for people in our worship, we name them. Yes it takes a little time. But ours is a solemn duty, to recite the names of those who cannot be physically present with us. We do this either in the Prayers of the People or within the Eucharistic Prayer itself, the more ancient placement in Christian liturgy. When we do so, when we remember them in this way, we make them present even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. We know, [as we have been singing,] that we are one body because we all share in the one bread. And very early on, within just a few generations of the Ascension that we observed on Thursday, Christians began to take the Holy Communion to the sick and others who could not be present. If they can’t be with us, the thinking went, we’ll go to them, because we’re all part of one single community. Naming those in the liturgy who cannot be with us makes them present in our hearts and minds, and then we, or our representatives, make ourselves present to them later when we bring them Communion.

This naming of names, this connecting us to those who are absent, does not only extend through space. It extends through time, as well. Not only do we name those who are ill or travelling or otherwise can’t be with us today, we are always invited to name those who are cannot again join us in this earth. We pray every Sunday for those who have died, named or un-named. We don’t do that to intercede for them to God, because we already know God is doing for them far better than we can ask or imagine. We do so because our connections to our honored dead don’t end at the time of death. We believe we will be with them in our own times, and we rejoice that they are in the nearer presence of God already. In the Creed that we will recite in just a few moments, we affirm the communion of saints as a present reality. Our naming of them makes them in some sense present to us now, even though we know that presence is transitory at best.

One of the most profound ways I’ve ever seen to honor those who have died is done at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, where I’ve gone on retreat. On the anniversary of the death of every monk of the order, the superior reads out his obituary at the end of Compline, the night service, before the monks retire for the evening. The last line is always, “We pray for our absent brother.” Absence implies and is in some ways the opposite of presence. To be absent means something temporary, like in school, when you’re marked absent, everyone knows you’ll be back again.

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, is a little strange because on this day we observe that Jesus is no longer with us physically. According to the Acts of the Apostles, on the 40th day after his resurrection Jesus was taken up to heaven. That 40th day was this past Thursday. The Ascension is a Principle Feast, one of only seven, including All Saints and Pentecost, because it is by removing his physical body from this universe, Jesus completes the Incarnation by not only uniting God and humanity here on earth, but also by bringing humanity to God in God’s nearer presence. The Ascension says that the Incarnation wasn’t just one way, but both ways. Not only God-meets-humanity, but humanity-meets-God as well.

But at the same time, we acknowledge that in a real and physical way Jesus is not with us. He is, like our honored dead, absent from us. And so we remember him. We remember who Jesus was and what he did for us while he was with us. We remember him every Sunday first in the reading and meditation on Holy Scripture and what it says about Jesus and how that makes sense in the world today. We do it secondly in the Holy Communion itself. In fact, we’re commanded to do so. “Do this in memory of me” is what Jesus asked the disciples to continue at the Last Supper. And it is that special remembering that makes Jesus present to us. It’s similar to how our brothers and sisters who are not with us either in space or in time are absent to us, but our naming them does not make them present except in our hearts. Our naming of Jesus, our remembering what he did for us, does make that once-for-all action real, right here and right now. What we are about to do at the Altar brings forward from 2000 years ago to today that same salvation, so that it continues to work inside us, even as we take into ourselves the very Body and Blood that Jesus first gave for us.

Remember the Where’s Waldo books? In these books for children, readers are invited to find Waldo in the pictures of intricately drawn people. Sometimes it’s easy to find him, sometime’s it’s not. This Sunday might well be called “Where’s Jesus?” Sunday. We, like the disciples, look for him but he’s not here. We celebrate that he is not only absent, but also present. He is not physically here in body, but he is physically here in you and me, who are his body and blood. It’s a strange season, this period of Ascensiontide. Jesus promised his disciples that God would send his Holy Spirit in place of Jesus, and that’s what we remember next Sunday at Pentecost. But right now, we’re on the cusp. Jesus is not here, and the Holy Spirit has not yet arrived. And yet we celebrate Jesus being right here in our midst all at the same time.

Our names make us who we are. The naming of names is powerful. In some societies one has a public name and a private name that one give to only one’s closest friends and family. For us Christians, our names identify us to God and to each other and to ourselves. Our names, when spoken, make us present when we’re absent, and we honor those who are not or cannot be present with us, by naming them in the midst of our worship. We name the name of Jesus in the same way. We make him present by and through his name, and his presence then infuses each of us, so that we, each of us, become little extensions of him. Our very lives, the day-to-day stuff we do every day, becomes a proclamation of the Good News. And so, although we don’t all go around wearing “Hello, my name is” stickers all the time, those around us can see Jesus’ name in our names. It’s Jesus’ name, after all, that is inscribed on us when we are sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism. That name is an indelible mark on our very souls that names us as belonging to Jesus, now and forever.

Names are powerful. I invite you to let that power work in your life so that, even though Jesus is not here, everyone will see and know that he is here, in each and every one of you.

O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.



Doorman-Priest said...

Lovely. What a pastoral sermon. Thanks.

RFSJ said...

You're welcome, DP. What in particular stood out for you?



the Reverend boy said...

Very very nice. Thank you. Ascensiontide is a bit of a weird piece of the Church calendar and this puts a nice turn on it.